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Conference deadlocked on ivory trade

Bickering African countries threw an international trade conference into deadlock over whether to ease an 18-year ban on ivory sales, with opponents warning it will increase the poaching threat in countries where elephants have almost disappeared.

Southern African countries, hoping to offload accumulated ivory stockpiles, pledged on Tuesday to earmark the revenues for conservation and said renewed trade will benefit their expanding elephant herds and the people who live close to them.

The dispute has consumed the triennial meeting of the 171-member Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, the watchdog organisation that outlawed the cross-border ivory trade in 1989 to halt the slaughter of elephants in Africa and Asia.

Three weeks of negotiations broke down late on Monday after failing to bridge competing proposals, either to further open the trade or to further restrict it.

”We were absolutely close to a solution,” German mediator Jochen Flasbarth told the packed conference hall. ”We didn’t succeed,” he said, acknowledging he was exhausted.

Kenya, which had proposed reinforcing the ivory ban with a 20-year moratorium on discussions, suggested one more try, and the open debate adjourned for more back-room haggling.

”Africa is huge and we all have different challenges,” said Kenyan delegate Patrick Omondi. ”We really need a practical way out.”

The conference ends on Friday, two days after an unprecedented ministerial-level meeting.

Herds in Southern Africa rebounded after elephants were declared in danger of extinction two decades ago. But the animals remain threatened in some West and Central African states, which have been ravaged by civil wars and rampant exploitation of natural resources.

Several countries — Cameroon, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo — have been implicated in a sharp rise in the illegal ivory trade over the last two years, said Traffic, a non-government wildlife monitoring group.

Sophisticated smuggling routes have been set up from Africa to Asia by organised Chinese gangs, it said in a report to the conference.

Last week, a Cites body approved a one-time sale of 60 metric tonnes of ivory by South Africa, Namibia and Botswana that had been stockpiled from animals which died naturally since the ban was imposed.

The three countries, joined by Zimbabwe, asked Cites to increase the one-off sale by another 40 tonnes and to authorise quotas for annual sales, with profits going to conservation trust funds.

Kenya and Mali, supported by 21 central and West African countries, called for a ”rest period” on further sales, arguing that reviving the legal trade would encourage poachers.

Compromise proposals centered on increasing the one-time sale to as much as 200 tonnes, and then freezing the issue for nine years.

The United States threw its weight behind the compromise.

”The elephant issue has dominated every one of these (Cites) meetings. We’re all tired of having to debate this question every time,” said the United States delegation leader, Deputy Interior Secretary Todd Willens.

Willens suggested in an interview that wider inter-African politics were part of the background between the feuding camps.

Like the African states, conservation groups also were split on whether easing the trade ban would harm or help the elephants.

A moratorium would give the Africans ”a big chance to find a joint solution to elephant management and to improve enforcement”, said Peter Pueschel, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Reopening trade ”will be a disaster for the elephants”.

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature said it had no problem with increasing the size of the one-off sale, saying it made no difference to monitors of the illegal trade whether 60 tonnes or 200 tonnes of legal ivory entered the market in a controlled way. WWF also opposed the moratorium.

But no matter how the trade issue turns out, ”we still haven’t solved the problem of elephant poaching. We think they spent the last three weeks talking about the wrong thing,” said Susan Lieberman, WWF’s director of the Global Species Programme. ‒ Sapa-AP

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